Fiserv Inc. is trying to move walk-in bill payment, a service aimed mainly at the underbanked, to the checkout lines of grocery stores, where it could reach mainstream bank customers.
Payday lenders, which make up about 20% of the customer base for Fiserv's CheckFreePay service, are coming under regulatory scrutiny that is driving some to exit the business.
That is forcing CheckFreePay to widen its scope, with an effort to make its systems more compatible with the demands of high-volume retailers.
"Government regulations are really changing the landscape of walk-in bill payment," said Paul Harrison, the general manager and senior vice president of CheckFreePay. "The time is right to look for a way to expand the market and also look for a way to make it a much better consumer experience than it is today."
One thing that will play a critical role in this effort is a deal Fiserv announced last week to license software developed by PayScan America Inc. that enables people to pay their bills at the point of sale.
The software allows checkout clerks to process bill payments by scanning bar codes printed on monthly bills. Once a bill is scanned, a payment is generated that includes the customer's name, account number, and balance due.
The entire process takes 10 to 15 seconds; CheckFreePay's current system can take up to two minutes and generally requires clerks to enter payment details manually. That is too much time for high-volume outlets, Mr. Harrison said.
"Most of them really are not equipped to handle the type of volume that we have with bill payment," he said. "It's a very difficult thing for a lot of retailers to take on."
Offering bill payment through grocery stores, discount stores, and other large merchants that consumers visit regularly would have two key benefits, Mr. Harrison said. First, increased transaction volume could offset any losses from the exit of payday lenders.
Second, Fiserv would be exposing additional people to the idea of walk-in bill payment, a service currently aimed mainly at underbanked consumers.
CheckFreePay is already available at some large retailers, including grocery stores, but not generally at the checkout lane. Instead, the service is typically offered at customer service windows.
Next month Ohio voters will consider whether to affirm or repeal a law enacted in June that would cap payday loans at 28%. When the Ohio Legislature passed the law in May, Cash America International Inc. said it would likely have to close its 139 stores in the state.
Advance America Cash Advance Centers Inc. of Spartanburg, S.C., has said it would close its 246 Ohio stores and its 24 in New Hampshire, where a similar law is scheduled to go into effect next year. It has already closed stores in Oregon, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, and New Mexico because of similar legislation.
Many people with bank accounts who do not pay bills online might be willing to shift to the walk-in service if it were offered at stores they frequent, Mr. Harrison said. Adopting online bill payment is "a measurably large technology leap" for those consumers, many of whom still use checks to pay their bills, but because they have bank accounts, they have likely never been exposed to the concept of walk-in payment services.
The locations that currently offer CheckFreePay are also likely to install the PayScan technology to increase efficiency and reduce errors, Mr. Harrison said.
One potential hurdle is getting the billers to use the needed bar codes. Mr. Harrison said that Fiserv could provide consumers with plastic key fobs that will bear bar codes.
Jennifer Roth, a research director with the global payments practice at TowerGroup Inc., a Needham, Mass., independent research firm owned by MasterCard Inc., predicted that billers would be eager to include the bar codes on their monthly statements. "They want to get paid, so they'll do whatever they can."
Gwenn Bezard, a research director at Aite Group LLC of Boston, said expanding CheckFreePay into new markets is a good idea. "A crackdown on payday lenders and new regulations certainly is going to be massive for companies that partner with them, like CheckFree."
More importantly, the scanning capability could boost the appeal of walk-in payments, he said. "The technology they are bringing to market makes a lot of sense if you look at the evolution of walk-in bill payment."
Most such payments were made by money order 10 to 15 years ago, but the emergence of electronic payment networks enabled people to use cash, Mr. Bezard said. "That alone has been a huge improvement over the original process."
The PayScan technology is "the third step in the evolution" of walk-in payments, he said.